17. When No Wind is Favourable

The Hydra of Greek Mythology (by Yoso999)

Experts are often bashed with the old adage — ‘if the only tool you have is a hammer then every problem looks like a nail’ — because it’s a widespread malaise. Seeing complex challenges as merely quite complicated technical issues that experts can ’solve’ is one of the biggest mistakes organisations can make.

The Cynefin Framework⁠ [1] is a sense-making tool that help decision-makers understand what kind of challenges they are facing and how they should (and, just as importantly, should not) tackle them. Armed with these fresh insight bureaucrats learn to see that not every failure is the fault of not following rules; would-be dictators learn that creating mayhem in order to seize power isn’t a viable long-term strategy; and experts learn that not every challenge can be solved with enough time and money.

If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable. — Seneca

Without a clear direction one is merely aiming indiscriminately — without a clear understanding of where one is to start with then setting a known direction is impossible. It is this crucial question that the Cynefin Framework helps with:

While your IT Director may consider the new ‘Opportunity Tracking’ software to be best practice and therefore Obvious (“we just need to roll it out”) your HR Director may warn that the teams who have to use it may have all sorts of issues adapting to it behaviourally — making adoption more of a Complex issue. While it would be naive for the IT Director to adopt a ‘build it and they will use it’ approach it’s equally naive for HR to let people resist an upgraded system merely because they are used to the old one. Therefore the wise Executive will recognise that a new IT system (for example) has both Obvious and Complex aspects, which need different approaches if it’s to be successfully adopted.

Recognising only one part of the challenge without any awareness of others means decision-makers are in a state of Disorder (a lack of situational awareness). This makes entirely predictable problems seem unpredictable and leads to the derailment of many of man’s best-laid plans.

Using Cynefin for Situational Awareness

Discovering where you are in a complex world without a map of the territory requires interactions with others and therefore active listening. Employee engagement, for example, has things the wrong way round — engagement is not an outcome of a successful organisation — it’s a cause.

In a more complex world understanding where you are and the types of challenge you face should not be a categorisation exercise — you can’t label your organisation, yourself or your challenges in one box: claiming that ‘my organisation is Chaotic, but I’m a highly Complex thinker so problems are Obvious to me’ is the mark of a demagogue or BS merchant. People don’t belong in one of the ‘boxes’, neither does your organisation and nor do your problems — they must be understood collectively and addressed by all.

Every challenge we face is a many-headed creature, like the Hydra of Greek mythology. Our biggest challenge is seeing things as they are, not as we are — with our biases unconsciously shaping what we see and pay attention to. This makes Cynefin a powerful sense-making tool for discovering what’s really happening by bringing multiple — often conflicting but always relevant — perspectives into play and creating a deeper understanding of where we are and what paths forward are viable.

Cynefin Framework Boundaries (slide taken from workshop, where it’s explained more fully)

Life is dynamic — events are in a continual state of unfolding and we are always somewhere that’s on the way to somewhere else. This makes the boundaries in Cynefin (see picture above) extremely important: which side of the boundary are you now and which direction are you heading?

Snowden outlines four main boundaries [⁠2]:

  1. OBVIOUS to CHAOS — The ‘Complacency Boundary’ or when excessive adoption of ‘best practice’ lulls one into a false sense of security. Even if it’s genuine ‘best practice’ (and not just copied from someone else) it can blind you to changes in the wider environment that may render your ‘efficiency and optimisation’ meaningless. For example, nature makes of mockery of even apex predators with sudden climate change (consider how quickly dinosaurs died out when the environment suddenly changed). For a business example consider Blockbuster or Blackberry
  2. COMPLICATED to OBVIOUS — The ‘Slippery Slope’. In the Complicated Domain variation is permitted — there are ‘many ways to skin a cat’ and experts need the freedom to experiment and improve their technique. But efficiency drives often see variation as waste, so efforts are made to engineer it out. Not only does this cult of monotony alienate experts but it seriously harms the organisation’s ability to incrementally improve. While rigid best practice can be useful if done well (checklists in hospital operating theatres for example) the temptation to shift everything into a rigid ‘best practice’ approach should be resisted as it kills the organisations ability to adapt when external changes means it’s needed
  3. COMPLEX to CHAOTIC — The ‘Dual Carriageway Boundary’. Chaotic events naturally become Complex once the energy that unlashes random disturbances dissipates. But Complex issues can quickly appear Chaotic if the system or its agents (people) start acting in ways that are entirely unexpected (because of a failure to understand or cope with complexity)
  4. COMPLEX to COMPLICATED — The ‘Rock-face’ transition is the most difficult to accomplish. It can take a lot of effort to start stabilising the patterns seen in the Complex domain to produce repeatable results — yet this is the most valuable boundary crossing you can make, as you harness the novel and exploit its inherent value through taming it. The mistake organisations often make though is to stay at the top of the rock-face once they’ve scaled it, even when the novelty has left and the value evaporated. The descent back down into the valley of the Complex can be equally tricky but is necessary if one wants to re-invigorate that which may have become stale and unsought after.

Recognising where we are is the first step to understanding which direction we should set and this requires interaction with multiple stakeholders. Tapping distributed knowledge in the network helps leaders determine the types of challenges they really face, where they are now and what options are available to them. The Cynefin Framework helps geo-locate the organisation and understand which ports they can aim for. How to get there is the subject of the third and final post in this short series on the Cynefin Framework.


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Narrative Insights is part of a global network working with leaders to apply insights from complexity science to ‘outflank wicked problems’. Harnessing complexity enhances agility — making you more adept at extracting value from an uncertain world by working effectively with how things really are — rather than only how you wished they were.

For more details on our ideas and work visit us on narrativeinsights.com or get in touch marcusguest@narrativeinsights.com

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